NNN 2020 annual conference champions inclusive, sustainable and resilient health systems to achieve global NTD goals and health for all

The 11th annual Neglected Tropical Disease NGO Network (NNN) conference highlighted the importance of people-centred, comprehensive health programmes that strengthen health systems and promote resilience to weather the public health crisis of COVID-19 and future health crises that impact communities affected by NTDs.

The NNN 2020 communiqué, released this week, shines a spotlight on the ongoing challenges presented not only by the COVID-19 pandemic to the global NTD community, but also by the opportunities to ‘build back better’ by confronting long overdue paradigm shifts at the core of the soon to be released World Health Organization (WHO) road map for NTDs, 2021 – 2030. These include strong, accountable local and national leadership; integration and cross-sectoral collaboration; and equity and impact.

Themed ‘Accelerating to 2030: Building Resilient NTD Programmes in a Changing World’, the conference brought together more than 1000 registrations, representing more than 300 organisations across 80+ countries. Held virtually for the first time from 8-10 September, the conference provided a diverse cross-section of NTD stakeholders an opportunity to explore innovative ideas and catalytic opportunities to accelerate progress towards the control, elimination and eradication of NTDs, in service to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The virtual conference also enabled greater access to more members across time zones and colleagues from other sectors.

Speaking at the opening plenary NNN Chair 2019-2020, Yaobi Zhang, said “Whether it is the COVID-19 pandemic, other public health emergencies or the risks from climate change, insecurity, and economic crisis, we know that this year’s conference theme ‘Building Resilient NTD Programmes in a Changing World’ is critical. It sets the tone for our engagement in the fight against NTDs up to 2030.”

The conference included 18 interactive workshops and 14 rapid-fire presentations, which provided a platform to discuss a range of cross-cutting issues that lie at the heart of the upcoming WHO NTD road map. During the sessions, two new tools were presented, including the NNN Conflict and Humanitarian Emergency Resource Guide, which supports organisations to learn more about working in difficult operating environments, and the joint NNN and International Federation of Anti-Leprosy Associations (ILEP) Guides on Stigma and Wellbeing. The ‘stigma guides’, hosted by infoNTD, provide best practice information and recommendations from various disciplines on how stigma manifests, how it can be reduced, and the tools available to assess the experience of stigma and mental wellbeing.

Social inclusion, one of four pillars of the NNN BEST Framework, was highlighted throughout the conference, which culminated in the adoption of a NNN statement of commitment to the participation of persons affected by NTDs. The statement recognises that people have the right and duty to participate individually and collectively in the planning and implementation of their health care and encourages members to ensure that NTD programmes are based on the principles of participation, non-discrimination and accountability.

The importance of the participation of people affected by NTDs was powerfully delivered by Paula Brandão, a nurse and activist who is affected by Hansen’s disease, also known as leprosy. Speaking at the opening High-level Panel, Brandão said, “NTD programs must recognise the critical role of affected people in the creation of solutions based on a situational analysis, working with the people who live the problem. The design of projects should be founded on the principles of participation and empowerment.”

The importance of human rights based participatory health programmes was echoed by Alice Cruz, UN Special Rapporteur on the elimination of discrimination against persons affected by leprosy and their family members, who said “Systemic change can only be achieved through enabling affected groups to have a voice and choice. Their autonomy, active citizenship and democratic engagement in public affairs are key for any sustainable action.”

In addition to Brandão and Cruz, NNN participants also heard from luminaries Dr. Mwelecele Ntuli Malecela, Director of the Department of Control of Neglected Tropical Diseases of the World Health Organization, Margarita Focas Licht, Chief of Effective Partnership at the Global Partnership for Education; Kelly Saldana, Director of the Office of Health Systems at USAID's Bureau for Global Health; and Dr. Githinji Gitahi, Chief Executive Officer of Amref Health Africa. These High-level Panel speakers emphasised the importance of health systems strengthening to build more resilient health systems, universal health coverage to deliver healthcare equitably, and cross-sectoral coordination, such as among health, WASH and education, so that progress can be sustained well beyond 2030.

The 2020 NNN conference concluded with several significant moments for the global NTD community. On the final day of the conference, WHO announced Myanmar as being validated  for eliminating trachoma as a public health problem; two NTD innovation prizes were awarded, providing $20,000 and $15,000, respectively, to support innovative projects for onchocerciasis and leprosy; and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation invited NNN members to contribute to the NTDs Idea Forum: Programme innovation in a COVID-19 context. The meeting will consist of a series of virtual Funding Forums to unite NTD control programmes, implementing and technical partners, and donors as they consider how NTD programmes must adjust in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with funding being made available for the most innovative ideas.

The closing plenary of the 11th annual NNN conference also saw a change in leadership, with Arielle Dolegui, World Vision, being endorsed as the incoming NNN Vice Chair, making Kisito Ogoussan, FHI 360, the new NNN Chair for 2020-2021 and Yaobi Zhang , Helen Keller International, the Immediate Past Chair. As a result of this rotation of the NNN leadership, Professor Gail Davey has completed her term on the NNN Steering Committee, for which the attendees enthusiastically thanked her, recognising her service and celebrating the news of her role as the next President of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.

To end the conference, Kisito Ogoussan, the incoming NNN Chair, issued a call to action, inviting all attendees to move forward with renewed energy, ideas and approaches and to share ideas about how the NTD community can do better. These ideas will be discussed at the next NNN conference, which is currently planned to be held in Kathmandu, Nepal, in September 2021.

If you missed the conference or would like to catch up on any sessions, recordings and presentations are now available at the NNN website.

The NNN conference was made possible by the generous support of NNN Conference sponsors, particularly the Platinum (American Leprosy Missions and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) and Gold (The Carter Center, CBM, NLR - until No Leprosy Remains, and the SCI Foundation). The NNN also gives special thanks to Maximize Your Time, the official Professional Conference Organisers with whom NNN partners, who worked tirelessly behind the scenes for the months leading up to, and the days during, the conference.